lots of dollars but little sense in fall sitting say mlas

MLAs barely had time to get comfortable at their desks in the legislature when shrieks from the fire alarms overwhelmed the building.

MLAs barely had time to get comfortable at their desks in the legislature when shrieks from the fire alarms overwhelmed the building.

On the last day of the fall sitting, it seemed more like an end-of-school prank than an emergency.

Twenty minutes after two fire trucks arrived to handle the overheated elevator that set off the alarms, the MLAs and bureaucrats and support staff that huddled in groups circling the legislature returned to work.

The day’s session, the last until spring, was not extended.

But an extra half hour wouldn’t be enough to deal with the unfinished business of the legislature, say opposition MLAs.

Seven weeks wasn’t enough time to deal with outstanding issues like the unresolved future of the shaky $36.5-million investment, said NDP leader Todd Hardy.

“That itself — if the government is willing to be accountable for their investments — is enough to extend (the sitting) just one day,” said Hardy.

The restructuring proposal for billions of dollars in frozen asset-backed commercial paper is expected Friday, the day after MLAs finished their fall legislative session.

Late Thursday afternoon, Hardy made an unsuccessful bid to extend the sitting by one week.

Speaker Ted Staffen ruled Hardy’s request out of order.

“I’d be happy to work more, sitting in the legislature doing the people’s business,” said Hardy.

Financial issues dominated house business this fall, from question period to lengthy afternoon debates on the supplementary budget that lasted nearly the entire session.

MLA pay hikes, shaky investments, contract interference leading to large discounts on penalties, department budgets debates, and audits of financial contributions doled out by the government were major issues for opposition parties.

This session has shown the government, for all its posturing on its healthy financial condition, has poor control over fiscal matters, said Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell.

“If anything, they’ve been financially lucky until now,” said Mitchell.

“They’re governing in a time of strong mineral prices, low interest rates — therefore an upturn in mining activity — and increasing federal transfers.

“If you’re sloppy enough, eventually, no matter how much money you have, you can get into trouble.”

Tourism and Culture Minister Elaine Taylor filled in for Premier Dennis Fentie on the finance portfolio.

Fentie is recuperating from surgery that removed a tumour from his bladder.

Usually fall sittings are based on legislation.

But this fall, politicians were focused on the supplementary budget, which updated financial situations for government departments.

“There was new funding for municipalities, arts and culture and sports and recreation,” said Taylor.

But there was important legislation passed too, she added.

Amendments made to the municipal act increased funding for communities and amendments to the subdivision act, which makes it easier for landowners to sell and transfer land, are significant improvements, said Taylor.

Other legislation given royal assent include amendments to the Legislative Assembly Act that increased salaries for MLAs, changes to the Motor Transport Act and the Second Appropriation Act, or supplementary budget.

Outside the house, the government focused on families and children, said Taylor.

“Children’s benefits saw the second increase under our watch, and there was an increase in the income range, accommodating more Yukon families,” she said.

A million-dollar increase to childcare subsidies and new funding for the Food for Learning school program, were also announced.

“These were positive developments and we were able to get a lot of business done,” said Taylor.

MLAs gave themselves a raise earlier this week, and will now be paid $65,000 annually. Bonuses for the premier, ministers and party leaders increased, too.

But Hardy questions if MLAs have earned the money while working in a dysfunctional system.

“We can’t do the best we can under the restrictions,” he said.

The NDP focused on legislative renewal this session, introducing a bill calling for an examination of legislature rules that ultimately failed.

 The guillotine clause that limits the amount of days MLAs sit each spring and fall has significantly handicapped the opposition, said Hardy.

“Before, the opposition could hold the government in the assembly until it started answering questions,” said Hardy.

“Now with the 60-day limit, they can stall and stall and stall and then time runs out and they walk out free. They run out the clock. We’ve lost our accountability.”

Politicians need to make the legislature more relevant to people. That could include measures such as the ability for MLAs to call witnesses from the public or shortening the 20-minute time limit for questions when debating legislation.

The breakdown of the public accounts committee, which reviews government spending, is lamentable, added Hardy.

“It took work to get the committee running, to step outside of partisan politics,” he said.

“It’s quite significant that the committee became political again.”

Legislation passed this fall was mostly housekeeping bills that lacked significant relevance to Yukoners, said Mitchell.

But it’s going to be a busy spring, he added.

“We’re looking at a spring sitting that deals with a budget and, if we can believe the government, the introduction of the Children’s Act and anti-smoking legislation,” said Mitchell.

Rules of the legislature need to be reviewed so the government can be held accountable for its decision, he added.

“The government is a maestro when using the rules to filibuster legislation, to run out the clock and make ridiculous speeches,” he said.